Everything changed for Mirna Linares the day in early 2017 when three members of MS-13 came to her house and told her husband that, if he did not leave that day, the gang would kill his family.
Mirna was terrified. For weeks, the violent gang had been harassing the family because of her husband’s political activities. Two of his brothers had been killed for this reason.
Mirna went to the police station to ask for protection, but she was turned away. Indeed, the police officers told her that, by coming to them, she ensured the threat would be carried out and that they could not help her. That night, Mirna and her husband took their three daughters and started the difficult journey north to the U.S. border.
Mirna and her family are among the many thousands of people from El Salvador forced to leave home to seek protection each year. From 2012 to 2017, the number of El Salvadorans seeking asylum in the United States grew by 1,000 percent. The country is largely controlled by violent gangs and has one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
“We had to leave with the clothes we had on,” Mirna told Refugees International. “The only solution was to go as far as possible and reach the United States.”
But when Mirna and her family presented themselves at the border, a U.S. agent told them they could not be received. Without any other choice, the family crossed the Rio Grande to El Paso, TX to ask for asylum. They were arrested and interrogated, and Mirna and her daughters were separated from her husband.
U.S. law does not allow for the prolonged detention of migrant children, even if they arrive accompanied by a parent. But if children arrive with two parents, DHS can separate the family in order to keep one of the parents detained while releasing the children with the other.
Officers asked Mirna if she had family in the United States, and she told them she had a sister in Colorado. After a few nights in custody, Mirna and the girls were released to Annunciation House, a shelter where they were given beds for the night, hot meals, and fresh clothes. The next day, Mirna made arrangements to travel to Colorado, where the family would pursue their asylum case in immigration court.
Meanwhile, Mirna’s husband was placed in “expedited removal,” a policy now under review by the Biden administration, that affects those who arrive at the border without valid entry documents or enter without inspection. People like Mirna’s husband, who tell border officials that they fear return to their home country, are transferred to ICE custody, where they are interviewed by an asylum officer. At Otero County Processing Center, Mirna’s husband passed this interview. But he remained detained for three more months.
“It was very difficult. What do you do if you’re alone with your daughters? I felt lost,” Mirna recalled. “But I started to feel like… I know my husband isn’t here, but I could finally go out. I could finally talk. My daughters could finally play.”
An immigration judge at Otero eventually granted Mirna’s husband release on bond so that he could join the family in Colorado. Mirna, her husband, and their three children rebuilt their lives together. Mirna was welcomed by the local school, where her daughters received the support they needed and began to thrive. With help from a lawyer, the family won asylum. Mirna and her husband are working steadily and have bought their own home.
Asylum seekers like Mirna and her family contribute to U.S. communities in countless ways when given the chance.
“I’d like to learn English to the fullest,” Mirna told Refugees International. “I would really like to become a nurse. And my dream is to help my daughters strive forward and fulfill their dreams.”
Mirna hopes future asylum-seeking families like hers will never have to suffer cruel treatment and the pain of separation. The Biden administration must allow people to seek protection at ports of entry rather than turn them away. It must end all policies that separate families and unnecessarily detain people seeking asylum. The United States can receive people arriving at the border in search of protection with decency and respect and provide them a fair chance to make their case.
#WeCanWelcome Asylum Seekers
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With smart and humane policies, the United States can welcome people seeking safety and treat them with dignity. Read more at wecanwelcome.org.
PHOTO CAPTION: Mirna Linares is pictured with her family after fleeing El Salvador and winning asylum in the United States.